With the unraveling of the second most important negotiations in Geneva, the perennial question remains the sincerity of Iranian intentions. This political milestone is shrouded by public scrutiny, tilted either towards a distrustful suspicion of Iran or a belief in a novel beginning—towards either an agenda to distract the U.S. in the midst of nuclear advancement or a desire to mend diplomatic relations.
It is the very nature of Iran’s multi-dimensional and opaque political structure that fuels the fire for these polar speculations. With such an unclear governmental system, it remains impossible to understand the precise intentions in Tehran.
“There are many voices in the Iranian political arena, making it difficult to gauge who is speaking with certainty,” said Dr. S. Rob Sobhani, CEO of Caspian Group Holdings and former Senatorial Candidate of Maryland. “One of the fundamental goals of the Islamic Republic has always been survival. It has practiced a foreign policy of expediency over the last 30 years of its existence. So to answer the question of their sincerity—yes, they are sincere, but for their own purposes, which is to survive.”
This drive for survival may be the breakthrough to the diplomatic impasse. There seems to be hope in self-interested negotiation, in hunger for a dually beneficial outcome.
“Both sides have plenty of reason to distrust each other, and there are certainly interests in the U.S. and Iran that do not want to see a peaceful settlement to this nuclear bypass,” said Mr. Reza Aslan, author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller Zealot. “But what matters is pushing through the stalemate and negotiating in good faith.”
Though Rouhani’s homecoming had not been met with hospitality from Iranian hardliners, his encounter with Barack Obama during his New York UN visit established the first direct phone conversation between the U.S. and Iranian presidents since the 1979 revolution. Then, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry conversed at the highest-profile face-to-face meeting between Tehran and Washington in more than three decades.
“Reasons for optimism include wide support for Rouhani among Iranians who want international sanctions removed and the presumption that Rouhani’s initiative carries the backing of the Supreme Leader,” said Dr. Debra Shushan, Assistant Professor of Government at the College of William and Mary.
But the optimism also springs out of the significant and detailed proposals presented by the Iranian team, with the next cycle of negotiations sealed and set for November 7 and 8. On October 28th, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi beamed of the “very useful and constructive” discussions with IAEA Director Yukiya Amano in which mitigating concerns over illicit atomic bomb research was addressed.
Rouhani, unlike his predecessor, seems to be both sensible and capable; he is a seemingly fresh face of moderation in both his attitude and rhetoric. This moderation demonstrates a desire to resolve many issues that have been brewing over the decades: from economic sanctions to severe isolation from the West.
“From a strategic perspective, Iran wants to weaken the sanctions regime by taking the U.S. diplomatic initiative to the brink of normalization, but not to fully normalizing,” said Dr. Sobhani.
It is said that the outreach to Washington is the product of a meticulously prepared operation by Tehran and the explicit endorsement of the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The regime’s traditional base still has much control over the development of Iranian-US relations. With high unemployment, skyrocketing inflation, and a devalued currency, everyone seems to be on the same page—the supreme leader, the president and even the revolutionary guards are all on the same race for survival.
But both the U.S. and Iranian governments face a shared reality: both governments face significant internal opposition to a rapprochement with one another.
“The U.S. and the Iranian people want diplomatic relations, but the key here is who wins the domestic battles in Washington and Tehran,” says Mr. Alex Vatanka, Adjunct Scholar in the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. “It’s not down to the White House or President Rouhani—both have those domestic opponents.”
*All interviews with the aforementioned scholars were personally conducted for the Foreign Affairs Review.